Kenyatta Thompson, a lead organizer of Katal Canter, asks to release incarcerated individuals outside the Hartford Correctional Center. In mid-October, 56 incarcerated people at the Hartford Correctional Center tested positive for Covid-19, and the cases have grown since then. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
A sign was taped to a car window calling for the freeing of prisoners at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Monday, April 13, 2020, during a car protest by community organizers and prison advocates in a park next the women’s prison. They were calling for the release of prisoners who are at risk on infection from the Covid-19 virus. Cloe Poisson / CT Mirror.org
A sign was taped to a car window calling for the freeing of prisoners at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Monday, April 13, 2020, during a car protest by community organizers and prison advocates in a park next the women’s prison. They were calling for the release of prisoners who are at risk on infection from the Covid-19 virus. Cloe Poisson / CT Mirror.org

During four visits to prisons and jails in October and November, a five-member monitoring panel — formed as a result of the ACLU of Connecticut’s class action lawsuit on COVID-19 in correctional facilities — found that most incarcerated people and staff were wearing masks.

The findings were included in the panel’s initial monthly report, the first issued since the settlement agreement was reached over the summer.

The panel is charged with reviewing the Department of Correction’s ongoing response to the pandemic. Their areas of focus include mass testing strategies, quarantining the sick and cleaning and sanitizing correctional facilities.

The group is supposed to produce a monthly report for its first three months of work. Their initial monthly report covering October and November is dated Dec. 2.

One of the bigger points of contention between prison officials and incarcerated people and advocates during the pandemic involve staff use of masks. The ACLU alleged in October that mask-wearing was inconsistent among corrections officials.

“The No. 1 consistent thing we heard from literally everybody I’ve spoken to or emailed is the issue with staff not wearing masks consistently,” Elana Bildner, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Connecticut, previously told CT Mirror.

The monitoring panel’s report notes that staff have been educated on mitigating the spread of the virus, and that incarcerated people are receiving masks “as needed and when requested.” It also says staff and inmates are “wearing appropriate PPE” and that “Most staff and inmates were observed wearing face coverings.”

Members conducted site visits to Osborn, Robinson, and MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institutions, and Hartford Correctional Center, on Oct. 22 and Nov. 13. While there, they met with wardens and executive teams and toured medium and maximum security blocks, as well as medical units. They also spoke with corrections officers, medical staff and incarcerated people while they were on their tours.

In addition to the in-person visits, the panel participated in four remote meetings from Aug. 19 to Nov. 23.

The four-page report found that cleaning supplies were generally available in the housing units they inspected and that staff were aware of the protocols for acquiring and distributing supplies. It stated that all symptomatic COVID-positive people are held in MacDougall’s Medical Isolation Unit, where a nurse practitioner examines patients at least once per shift and takes a full set of vitals.

The assessment also found that documentation of prison housing units and common areas and cleaning logs were present in the inspected housing areas, and that staff were able to explain routine and high-intensity cleaning initiated because of suspected COVID-19 cases. The group recommended the DOC increase the training of incarcerated people who are dedicated cleaners.

The report notes that social distancing appears “sparsely implemented,” particularly in dormitory-style housing areas. Other federal guidelines appear to be implemented, including the use of quarantine for people potentially exposed to the virus and of people newly admitted to the facilities.

The group found that one quarantine unit at Osborn had “ample space for out of cell time,” but people were generally locked in their cells except for a short period when they could shower. The report also notes that officers were “unaware of which patients were high risk.”

The panel made a slew of recommendations related to personal protective equipment and mitigation measures. They proposed further training in the use of PPE for inmates who clean the facilities, and increasing the scope of testing for N95 mask fit among staff. They also suggested training prison staff in ways to maximize social distancing in housing areas.

Another recommendation was to hold town halls to educate the incarcerated population and staff on COVID protocols and expectations, which would include an “inmate liaison” committee to ensure the incarcerated are represented.

The panel is made up of people selected by both the state and the ACLU of Connecticut. Its members include Dr. Byron Kennedy, the DOC’s chief medical officer; William Mulligan, a district administrator and the interim deputy commissioner for the DOC’s operations and rehabilitative services; Dr. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer for New York City’s correctional health services; Dr. Jaimie Meyer, an associate professor at Yale School of Medicine who performs clinical work in Connecticut’s women’s prison; and Dr. John Morley, chief medical officer for New York State’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

The group noted in its report that they plan to visit other correctional facilities in December. 

“Will aim to increase interviews with incarcerated people at each facility, guided by documentation of subjective reports of non-compliance with protocols,” the report notes, mentioning that discussions are ongoing about extending the panel’s work through March of next year so they can help with monitoring the implementation of expanded testing policies and vaccine distribution.

The terms of the settlement — which includes the panel’s period of review — are currently in place until the end of the year.

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Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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